contemplation, Meditation, Shikantaza, spirituality

Frank Answers About Shikantaza (Sitting Meditation) and Christian Contemplation

Would zazen (in particular, shikantaza) be considered contemplation (i.e., passive, non-discursive) for a Christian?
I know Centering Prayer folks go to lengths saying Centering Prayer is different from zazen and is distinctively Christian.  Though Centering Prayer with “sacred nothingness” (i.e., “nothing but God’s silence, stillness, and spaciousness” (cf. David Frenette’s “The Path of Centering Prayer”) sounds like shikantaza to me.

Initially I thought I should decline to answer this question because I had not heard about “Shikantaza.” Nor have I practiced Centering Prayer, although I know a little about it. But the question really asks whether Shikantaza could be considered a form of contemplation for Christians. So I did some google research to find out what I could learn about Zazen and Shikantaza in order to give a reasonable answer.

Shikantaza is a form of Zazen, which means “seated meditation.” It is a primary practice in the Zen Buddhist tradition and means “just sitting.” In the Soto School of Japan practitioners sit in half-lotus position facing a wall in order to limit distraction (see the photo above this article). Unlike many other forms of meditation, shikantaza does not require focused attention on a specific object (such as the breath); instead, practitioners “just sit” in a state of conscious awareness of whatever arises, but not passing judgment on it. If the meditator is distracted, he or she returns awareness to the sitting body.

Shikantaza is often regarded as a meditation without a goal. But by sitting quietly in conscious awareness of whatever arises the meditator reflects directly on the reality of life in the form of whatever is present to conscious awareness. Hence, the mind must be alert. The meditation is performed erect, with no trace of sluggishness or drowsiness. This is accomplished by sitting upright, cross-legged on a cushion (tilted slightly forward) to keep the spine upright, or on a chair (but not leaning back on it).

Sitting in meditation, being aware of whatever arises, discovering ourselves through contemplation from a compassionate and nonjudgmental distance so that we can eventually live our lives more and more from this calm would not be something Christians could not do. In and of itself, it is a meditation technique.

I see elements of the eight limbs of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra in the practice of zazen. In the Yoga Sutra meditation is preceded by being in a moral state (yama), the ritual preparation of the body for the practice (niyama), assuming a posture (asana = seat), regulating breathing (pranayama), withdrawing the senses (pratyahara = removing distractions, e.g., by facing the wall), and concentrating (dharana = focusing attention) on a thought or object or just the breath. Meditation (dhyana) according to Patanjali, is continuing that focus without being distracted by extraneous ideas or objects (whatever arises). This leads to “pure contemplation” (samadhi), which Patanjali defines as “meditation that illumines the object alone.” (See Yoga Discipline of Freedom: The Yoga Sutra Attributed to Patanjali, Translated with Introduction by Barbara Stoler Miller (New York: A Bantam Book, 1998). (I don’t think Patanjali invented the eight limbs, but systematized what he saw as a common practice.)

If the object of Christian meditation is to contemplate my relationship with God, it may lead to an inner awareness and acceptance of who we are as a child of God, which also means coming to a greater awareness and acceptance of WHOSE we are.

This is already making a theological statement that would not be taught in the Buddhist tradition. There is debate over whether Buddhism has any theology at all, even though some forms of it have acquired a religious character through ritual practices that goes beyond just being spiritual. But Christian contemplation cannot be void of theological commitments.

What we are doing in Christian contemplation is opening ourselves to God who is not only “out there” but also “within us.” If we can connect with the indwelling Presence of God, where the “Spirit bears common witness with our spirit” (see Romans 8:16), this can change our lives. We become more attuned to God’s will for us in creation, in acts of redemption, and in the sanctification of life. Our Christian God is Trinity. We do not experience God’s “emptiness,” but God’s fullness.

Learning how to sit still, calming the mind while being aware of whatever arises, can be a valuable technique for meditation. A biblically-based spirituality begins by being aware of “what is.” “What is” is the creation of God, and at the outset of meditation we invoke the Holy Spirit of God to connect with our spirits to attune our mind and heart to awareness of what is. whether that “what is” is finally judged good, bad, or indifferent.

I have offered an invocation chanted in Latin, “Veni, Creator Spiritus”–“Come, Creator Spirit.” Sitting in a semi-lotus position I inhale deeply. Then I raise my arms above my head as I chant “Veni.” I inhale deeply again as I stretch my arms outward. In that extended posture I chant “Creator.” Then I inhale deeply a third time as I bring my hands to prayer position over my heart. In that prayer position I chant “Spiritus.” I may do this three times, each time calling to mind the Father above us, the Son stretched out on the cross for us, and the Spirit within us. Note that the Latin “Spiritus” is the same word as “breath.” The Spirit is “the breath of God.” In the Nicene Creed we affirm the Holy Spirit as the “giver of life.”

St. Paul says, “Ever since the creation of the world, the invisible essence of God and his everlasting power have been clearly seen by the mind’s understanding of created things” (Romans 1:20). We know God through the things that God has made, the reality of “what is.” Contemplation is meeting this reality in its most simple and direct form without judging, explaining, or trying to control it. Contemplation (a state of being) may lead to action (ethics), but it is not action in itself. It is a state of inactivity.

This state of inaction is more important than we may think. If we don’t know how to love what’s right in front of us, then we don’t know how to see what is. This suggests meditating not against a solid wall but facing an open window, or even meditating outdoors. It also suggests focusing on an object such as a tree or a stone or even a bird if it lingers long enough. Perhaps once we can see God in plants and animals, we might learn to see God in our neighbors–perhaps the neighbor across the street who is raking leaves or shooting basketballs in the hoop on the garage. (I see such scenes from my window.)

In contemplation we might learn to love the world we see. And then when all of that loving has taken place, when all of that seeing has happened, our soul is prepared to move out of our self and toward the world around us with love and compassion, as Jesus the Christ did. In a world that is suffering heat exhaustion from our human carbon emissions and inflamed tempers from heated political disagreements, moving with love and compassion may not seem like much. But it is a cooling witness that might move others to the realization that, as Charles Eisenstein proposed in The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Posssible, “our salvation [ = healing] must come from recovering a direct relationship to what’s alive in front of us” (p. 48).

I don’t think Buddhists would disagree with this outcome. They may have a different way of moving toward it, also through contemplation. But this, I think, is an example of Christian contemplation. In contemplation we become attuned to the world and recognize ourselves as connected with it and to the Creator as well.

Pastor Frank

1 Comment

  1. Yuji

    I’m a Japanese cradle Catholic, and only vaguely know a few things about Buddhism, in which I’ve just started getting interested.
    I know some priests here who introduced zazen techniques into their meditation, but have never participated in a zen retreat of theirs, because I was a bit skeptical about the combination of Buddhist techniques and Christian spirituality.
    I feel like this article of yours made the scales fall from my eyes.

    I wish I had some clergy persons like you, with whom I could consult about both spirituality and sexuality!

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